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Monday, 10 May 1993
Page: 345

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Prime Minister. It concerns the Prime Minister's recent establishment of a committee to report on the options for removing the Queen as head of state and on deleting all references to the monarchy, thus laying the groundwork for an eventual republican push.

  Government senators interjecting

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN —It is just something a little different. How can the Minister justify the enormous amount of energy and money which are being put into the republican issue at a time when over one million Australians are out of work and when the rural industries, which have for so long supported this country's economic expansion, are facing the greatest crisis this century? Is it not a case of putting the cart before the horse in establishing this somewhat partisan committee, when the people of Australia have not spoken by way of referendum as to whether they even want a republic? Does the Minister agree that the Prime Minister, in his quest to engineer these changes, will go down as the architect of a new Australia—

The PRESIDENT —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I think the rationale for initiating a debate on the republic at this stage is well understood, as articulated by the Prime Minister, not least the fact that there is mounting evidence that a significant majority of the Australian community regards this as an issue which not only deserves debate and attention at this stage but, indeed, deserves to be moved forward with Australia adopting a republican constitution.

  It is, of course, a matter of difficulty and delicacy; it needs a proper public debate. We have set no particular timetable on the achievement of a conclusion about that or the implementation of the recommendations that may emerge from this advisory process. We simply want to generate a debate. We believe that this is a matter which is of lively interest to a very large number of Australians—the majority, in fact—and one that they do not mind in the slightest being able to think about and talk about while, at the same time, of course, being concerned with the rural situation and the need to give some life and stimulus to the Australian economy and to create more jobs and more employment.

  I think, just as Gerald Ford had to contend with the proposition that it is difficult to walk and chew gum at the same time, so too it is necessary from time to time for us to be able to do more than one thing at a time. I think in this particular context Senator Bjelke-Petersen would acknowledge that this is an issue dear to the heart of a great many people; dear to the identity of this nation; important in establishing a trading reputation and capacity for ourselves as a free-standing, independent nation and, as such, something that has a real utility from the point of view of our longer term economic interests as well as purely our longer term cultural interests and national pride. For all those reasons, we believe that this is an entirely legitimate debate.

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I just wonder how the Minister has any definite figures about the fact that people really want a republic when there has not been a referendum on the matter.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I can understand the sensitivity of the Opposition to opinion polls of any kind at the moment, particularly those bearing upon questions of leadership and likely political performance, but there are some opinion polls around which suggest that this is an issue in which a great many Australians are absorbed, captivated and fascinated. Moreover, it is an issue on which they are beginning to develop some very strong feelings indeed—which, regrettably, seem to be somewhat at odds with those still being embraced by Senator Bjelke-Petersen's own party. But perhaps it is only a matter of time before they too catch up with history.

  Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.